By Cris Mazza

He’d gotten a postcard six months or so after she got married, which was six months or so after the one night he’d had with her. Which wasn’t even a whole night, and they hadn’t “had” everything, just the parts that could have told her how he felt, if she’d wanted to hear him. Tone deaf to his caress, his quivering need held in abeyance, his fingertips pleading, six months later she was married to someone else. Six months after that the postcard:

February 2, 1981  Dang, Cal [he could hear her hard, squeaky laugh] we were such kids, such babies. Someday you’ll see and we’ll be able to be great friends. I needed stability so I could go after what I always wanted. Found out I need psychology and animal behavior classes if I’m going to be an animal trainer for the movies, and even a pro who’ll take me on as an apprentice. Learning and watching and always practicing, like you did with your sax. Don’t abandon it, Cal.

It. What she didn’t want him to abandon. Of course clearly she meant the sax. Otherwise, if it was something else—the it containing everything he felt about her—she would have provided her new address. That it, the real it refused to be abandoned.

In 1981, when he got the card, he didn’t feel like a kid. He didn’t even feel young, although he hadn’t yet acted out of wretched acquiescence. (Wretched in 1981 was jargon for horny, but eventually it returned to its original meaning.) By 1982 a woman with two kids who was supposed to be a one-nighter, a road gig as they said in the band, was living with him in the equally wretched desert where he found work in a music store, taught lessons and fixed band instruments.

One night in 1995, when the cops got there, they found the living room furniture a little askew, the TV trays totally upended, dishes from dinner on the carpet. But in the kitchen there was a carnage of the watermelon on the floor, more dishes—broken ones—and the knife meant to split the melon standing upright, its point buried in the cutting board. They also found Cal on the front lawn, locked out of the house. The cops, male and female, took turns, one inside, one outside, asking the same questions. “Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere? Do you want her arrested?”

Yes, no, and no. Sticks and stones….

 Worthless piece of shit.

“How’d she get a 200 pound man out the door against his will?”

“I didn’t fight back.”

“Good idea.”

“Yeah, I just went the direction she was pushing me. I knew she’d calm down.”

“What was the fight about, sir?”

“I won’t send any more money to the… kids.”

“Your kids?”

“Actually… hers.”

“You could decide not to press charges, but if it got worse, you couldn’t stop us from arresting her.”

“It was just dishes, and… I moved my horns down to the shop.”

The cops, of course, didn’t understand that.

He walked around the block, eight p.m. temperature still in the 90s. When he got home, the kitchen was cleaned, the garbage taken out to the cans at the side of the house. She was, by this time, his wife, and was making ice cream sundaes with root beer. He wrote a check for $150 to the twenty-five-year-old burnout.

The stepdaughter’s name was Trinity. In September of 1983 She was having a birthday party, the first one to have boys. September, like June, July and August before it, still damn hot. But she wanted a piñata out in the yard, and Twister in the living room, with music. No other baby games, and good candy in the piñata. She nixed Cal’s idea of including small school items like new pencils or pens.

“Hey Trin, how about some movie tickets, or McDonalds gift-certificates?” Her mother called her Trin. Her girlfriends called her T. Cal could guess where the boys would take that.

“Why not just put a whole stereo and a couple of records inside?” he said.

“You can butt out,” the girl said.

“We’ll need you to swing the piñata,” the woman said. Her name was Virginia. Her girlfriends called her Virge or Virgie. Cal didn’t. He used the whole thing, to emphasize something he was trying to get her to understand, or if there was any reason he needed to get her attention during dueling idiocy with the girl instead of (what he usually did) just butting out.

When he’d first learned the girl’s name—at some point after the supposed-to-be-a-one-nighter with her mother but before moving together out to the desert, maybe even when Virginia was introducing her daughter to him (on a so-called date arranged by Virginia after the supposed-to-be-a-one-nighter when she kept calling him because she’d gotten his number from the band’s female singer, and he figured what the hell…)—he’d said, “Trinity. That’s interesting.” He wasn’t sure if maybe there was a church reason, but didn’t know if he cared enough to ask.

“It’s because when she arrived, we became a Trinity, a threesome.”

“I thought there’s an older brother,” he’d said.

“Yes, Angel, so with Trinity we became three.”

“What about…” Then he’d decided not to ask. And by the time he knew about the man, Merle, who sent the child-support checks for the girl, it was no longer in his head to ask about the trio thing. At least Merle was the same man who the boy went to visit in Las Vegas every weekend. Cal wasn’t sure where the bus fare came from. But he wasn’t looking too closely at the bank statement in those days.

Virginia had had a job. He’d thought she’d had one when she was hanging around his gigs, but it turned out that was an assumption based on, well, people had jobs. She said she’d been a casino cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. At first, living with him in the Imperial Valley, she’d worked at Kmart for about a month. They let her go, she said, because the other women talked about her in Spanish behind her back and she wasn’t going to take it. Did that mean she quit? He didn’t ask. But he did inquire, “How do you know they were talking about you if they were speaking Spanish?”

“That’s how they are,” she said. “They also run into me with grocery carts in the store. On purpose, I know it.”

Cal’s friend who owned the music store where he worked once got his brother’s catering company to hire Virginia as a freelance party waitress. She was too slow, Cal’s friend said, and she tried to tell the bartender he was making the drinks wrong. When she applied to be a teacher’s aide at Trinity’s school, Cal discovered she hadn’t quite finished high school. But in those days school districts actually paid parents or retired people as the crosswalk guards or playground proctors. Then she suddenly stopped doing that after a few weeks. “Trinity didn’t want me there,” she’d said.

At her party, Trinity wore the tight designer jeans she’d requested for her birthday. Neither Trinity or Virginia responded to his inquiry: Had she sat down in a bathtub of blue paint?  Trinity had a two-page magazine spread of Brooke Shields, wearing those same jeans, taped to the wall of her room. But instead of the flowing silk-looking blouse Shields wore—buttoned only between her smallish breasts, falling away to show her flat suntanned stomach—Trinity chose to wear a halter top. Some of the other girls wore tanks or sleeveless tops, one of them with leg warmers and a miniskirt, but none of them were as physically developed as Trinity.

“Are you letting her wear that?” he’d whispered to Virginia in the kitchen.

Virginia shrugged. “She’s old enough to dress herself.”

Virginia had fixed Trinity’s long hair so her face looked small in the middle of a big ratty mess. It was one of Virginia’s styles, except she wore a wig. That was probably why Virginia’s hair didn’t change much, but Trinity had hers in a messy, sweaty ponytail after the piñata. Cal had executed his assignment manning the rope, raising, lowering and swinging the smiling black-and-red bull-shaped piñata while each blindfolded kid took three or four swings with the souvenir bat Cal had gotten as a kid on bat-night at the ballpark but had never used. All three boys, black, Latino, and white, were skinny shrimps compared to Trinity, but as quick as her with cliché kid-talk, awesome and radical, killer and badass. They each wore a T-shirt with some big words or nasty-looking cartoon. One of them — the black one, or maybe Latino/black — had a cap like a cab driver mashed onto wet-looking curls and big aviator sunglasses he had to take off when he was blindfolded. While the kid whaled away, Cal could smell whatever goop had been used to make those wet-looking curls. No one touched the piñata (a few almost clobbered Cal or each other).

“Let them hit it,” Virginia shouted. So they all had another turn without the blindfold, and in five or six swings, the bull was tufts all over the yard, the kids scrambling together on the ground on hands and knees, greedy bastards trying to get the most for themselves. One seemingly younger little girl with short dark hair who’d come in a dress with a sailor collar—maybe someone’s little sister or one who hadn’t kept up with her classmates—stood to the side of the jumble of arms and legs, hair and feet and hands. So Cal went inside (taking his now scuffed bat), grabbed the last box of the chocolate bars he’d hidden away after loading the piñata, and dropped it whole and unopened into the dark haired girl’s sack.

When Twister started, Trinity said, “We don’t need you for this,” then turned the stereo up. Kool and the Gang. Now Trinity was wearing the cab driver cap. Cal went to the kitchen for a beer. At some point, when four or five kids were snarled up on the Twister mat, Cal happened to look through the kitchen’s pass-through window and saw a boy sink his teeth into the bulge of Trinity’s halter top.

Cal went down the hall to his bedroom. The bedroom he shared with Virginia. In a ritual he used to do at gigs, he peed, holding his dick with one hand while his other hand held the beer bottle to his mouth, trying to pee as long as it took to swallow the rest of the beer. What a boor he’d been then. A dirtball. And yet in some ways not dirtball enough, since he’d had to be stoned in order to finally fuck one of the women who hung around at gigs and then ended up living with her, raising her children. A spineless dirtball jellyfish with a dick, and now probably just a jellyfish.

He was almost back down the hall bringing the beer bottle to the kitchen when the Twister game broke up, apparently because the cabbie hat fell off Trinity’s upside-down head so another girl picked it up and put it on her own head. Some names were called. Bitch and ho. Hands slapping at each other’s faces in girl-fight posture he’d seen too many times at club gigs, bodies so far apart only their upper arms can reach each other. “Where’s Trinity’s mom?” he asked the dark-haired girl with the sailor collar, sitting at the kitchen table with the eviscerated store-bought decorated cake and four or five plates of smashed cake pieces.

“She said she was getting something she forgot from the car.”

In a junk tray on the pass-through windowsill, Cal kept an old sax mouthpiece still holding a frayed reed, specifically for times like this, although usually for bouts between Trinity and Angel, or Trinity and her mother. (Virginia and He’s-My-Angel never fought.) Cal tongued five pig-squeal bleats. A burst of laughter, hoots and exclamations. Maybe the fight was already over anyway. Someone turned the music up. Hall & Oates. Two of the boys came into the kitchen for more cake. The bathroom door slammed. One of the boys said, “She tweakin,” then slid his eyes sideways toward Cal, ducked his head. The dark-haired girl was no longer at the table. When Cal went back to the bedroom to get away from the thumping funk, one of the other girls was in there, looking at the dresser, the top of it where boxes and bottles sat. Not his shit.

“You lost?” Cal asked.

“Uh, where’s T at?”

From the living room Virginia called, “Girls, Cal brought some new records from the store.”

Like hell he had.

But Virginia had six or eight albums fanned out on the floor, the Twister mat kicked aside. Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Genesis, The Go-Gos, Duran Duran, Motley Crue, Black Sabbath…  maybe the whole top-sellers rack. Four or five of the kids were on hands and knees sliding the albums around on the carpet, flipping them over to see the photos and songs listed on the backs. Cal couldn’t see Trinity out there. “Let’s have a dance, I can still shake it up,” Virginia said, over the top of the Hall and Oats still playing. She ripped the cellophane off an album and stopped Private Eyes with a screech of the needle across the grooves.

The dancing started, Virginia bumping hips with some of the girls, and Trinity literally leaped back into the room—from her bedroom? The bathroom?—the cabbie hat perched on her back-to-big-and-loose ratty hair, and now also the aviator glasses screening her eyes. The wet-curled boy, who’d arrived wearing both, danced tentatively, while Trinity boogied in a circle around him. Maybe if he had his hat and glasses back he’d start to get down, but was an undressed Superman without them.

In the kitchen, Cal started throwing away paper plates, plastic cups and spoons. The plates and cups had pictures of E.T. riding a bike, thick and waxed, used once and piling up in the trashcan. He looked through cupboards to put the rest of the unused ones away and found two different drawers plus a cupboard crammed with paper plates and cups, from a stack of a thousand plain white ones, to Valentine, Christmas, Easter and Halloween themed plates, plus sets with pictures of balloons or stars, some not opened. While looking, he also found a cupboard with no less than ten boxes of prepared cake mix.

A car passing in the street rattled the manhole cover. On reflex Cal looked out the window and saw the dark-haired girl sitting on the raised brick garden box that separated the front porch from the driveway. The garden box had one bird of paradise plant, most of its fronds dead or broken. Cal was only renting this house and had asked the owner to pay half the water bill if he took care of the lawn. He hadn’t had a chance to do anything with the gardens, but maybe fixing them up would be another way to stay out of the house an extra hour or two on weekend mornings before he went to the music store where he fixed band instruments.

The dark haired girl was picking tiny weeds out of the garden box, making a little pile of them on the brick edge where she also sat, her bag from the piñata beside her. Cal had bundled the trash and come out the front door. “Dancing not your thing?” He put the trash bag down on the porch, on a bench that was there with two other trash bags waiting for a trip to the container around the side of the house. The porch area, tucked between the house and the garden box, also collected blowing trash from the sidewalk and street.

“I guess not,” the girl said, not looking up from plucking the spindly weeds. From the house, either thumping of the bass or feet on the floor. The screeching, whooping voices inside were all female-pitched, but then again, these boys hadn’t started changing.

Cal cleared his throat. “You’re a friend of Trinity’s?”

“I guess.”

“Well, she invited you, didn’t she?”

“I guess so.”

“How do you know Trinity?”

“I help her with math.”

“That’s nice, how’s she doing?”

“Okay I guess.”

A breeze hit Cal’s face, cooling his sweat. Over his head, a sign Virginia had hung there squeaked a little. The sign said Cal & Virgie. In script, cut into wood, then varnished. When the dark-haired girl turned and looked at him, for the first time since he’d come onto the porch, she likely wasn’t looking at that fucking sign, but said, “You’re not her dad.”

“No, I’m not.” Then he wondered if she’d said that to mean he shouldn’t be asking questions about Trinity. But she’s all of what, eleven years old?  He picked up the trash again, then picked up the other two bags. “Guess I’ll get these where they belong.” And who was he explaining his actions to?

When he came back, the girl was just sitting there, as though waiting for him. She smiled a little. Didn’t she? Cal said, “Trinity’s copying your math homework, isn’t she?” The girl’s smile faded. Cal almost touched the top of her head with his index finger as he passed to go back into the house, but stopped his hand at the last second. He paused in the doorway, then turned back, went back. Cleared his throat again. “Did she say she’d hurt you if you didn’t let her use your homework?” He noticed the girl was holding the little heap of weeds in one cupped hand. She didn’t close her fist. She also didn’t answer and wasn’t really looking at him, although she’d turned to face him when he’d spoken. “If she did,” he said, “tell your parents, or the principal. Tell someone.” He waited, but she didn’t move. “Do you need a ride home?”

“My mom’s coming. I called from inside.”

“Here,” he said, extending his hand beneath hers. She tipped her palm and dumped the snarl of wilting weeds into his.

By the time the last kid was gone, the indestructible Twister mat was torn and three records were in five or more pieces. “We didn’t want to dance to them so we danced on them,” Trinity gasped. She’d seemed to be laughing or hiccupping for an hour, still wearing the wet-curled boy’s hat.

Cal got his car keys from the kitchen so he could go to the music store. “Can you take these back and say they were broken when we opened them?” Virginia asked. He pretended he hadn’t heard and kept going into the garage, glad for the excuse to spend a Saturday evening in the repair shop, because he’d given up the daytime hours for the party. He’d more than once told Virginia (usually when she asked why they didn’t go out dancing anymore, as if they ever had, unless she counted hanging around at his gigs) that, since he worked day hours in the music store, nights and weekends were when he had time to devote to his repair business. Even if he was really just sitting there listening to his records (most of which he kept there) on the music store’s stereo system. And thinking. He took care of himself there. It was nice if he didn’t have too much of a backlog of instruments to repair, so could focus on just the right image. He didn’t keep a picture of her, as she directed him to remember her. It wasn’t that private. But sometimes, just seeing a girl of about that age, the age she’d been when he saw her every day, scratching her bare shoulder while she looked at something in the display case. Or if he’d spotted a couple dancing at one of his (fewer lately) gigs, and the girl was a lot shorter than the guy, and sort of draped against him like a ribbon. Even, rarely, one of the models they used in Playboy might appear more vigorous than languid, have a wry smile, austere eyes that impaled him, short dark hair. It was not necessarily if a woman or model looked similar, but the way she looked at whatever she was looking at, some glint of expression, a sharpness that hid something deeper and heavier, and, admittedly, in Hustler a girl might be looking with layers of deep meditation at a guy’s cock, or over her shoulder with smoky complexity, locking eyes as he fucked her. But, really, once he closed his eyes, he didn’t need the staged bare genitals.

Sometimes he did both, fixed a few instruments, then had his “alone time.” And was able to not be back home until Virginia was already in bed, on her side against the wall. He could steal in and lie still, and sometimes even have another session of alone time when he woke, somewhere after midnight, and began the wake-doze slide toward five a.m. Daytime was much too busy, even if he was home, the kids were usually around, phone ringing, music playing. Hell yeah, he made thin excuses—the kids would hear, he was tired, he didn’t feel well—until the thinness was on the verge of transparency and he had to give it a go, often faking a finale if he knew he was losing it, or after he’d figured it had been long enough to be enough.

No he didn’t pretend Virginia was someone else. How would that even be possible?  The basic ingredients weren’t just a wet place to put it. He knew other guys really got off fucking anyone who would fuck, the anonymity or the variety putting the fencepost in their dicks.  Maybe he’d already had the biggest hardon he would ever have—how many years ago now, almost three?—one he hadn’t used that night, and it wasn’t novelty or big tits or contortionist positions that caused it.

Now it was only this: Turrentine or Coltrane or Brecker on the stereo in his shop. An oscillating fan passed by his face in slow rhythm, cooling sweat that prickled between passes, until later when the sweat would run crooked rivulets through his chest hair. Not a reverie just to see himself with the saxophone, himself on the stage or in the spotlight, himself speaking the mood with his reed, his horn, his breath and body. If it’s him playing, he plays for her. She comes into the club. She feels it in the way the horn phrases the tune into emptiness and longing. In subtone or with a hard core, burbling runs or sharp tonguing, vibrato growing wider, slower, or a deathcry scream. She would stop, framed for a moment in the open door, only a silhouette, except the sax player can’t see, plays with his eyes closed. The door gently shuts, like an eyelid dropping before sleep. In darkness, she can see the sax player in the low floods on the tiny stage. Stars occasionally glint from the sax’s bell. Dark backs of heads between her and him. Sometimes someone gets up, a black human shape blocking the sax player from her for a moment. But laughing, talking, glasses clinking don’t cover what his horn is saying. She’s still there by the door during the last two or three block chord changes, when his playout utters his ultimate plea. His last note is held, throbbing, and he opens his eyes and meets hers.

So he took care of himself.

Afterwards, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to, pounded in his temples like a tune entrenched in his head. He said it to her postcard, which he kept in a drawer under scraps of cork sheets. He didn’t have a photograph. He didn’t need one. He said it to the sideways look she might give him, and the way she would probably say Dang, Cal, who are you apologizing to… or for?

It feels like cheating.

Isn’t it what happens when people are married? You must obviously know I’m not a virgin.

You don’t love me, so it’s not cheating for you… even though… even if you’re… even when you’re… somewhere else.

The sad smile, the dull glaze in her eyes before her gaze dropped away from his, the heartbeat of silence before her eyes returned, the almost imperceptible shrug. He finished before he’d slid the straps of her tank top over her shoulders.

But felt he should apologize, again, remembering he would have to do it, next time Virginia brought it up. He tried to explain, while he had a cigarette, outside the closed-and-locked music store:

Sometimes I can tell it’s coming because she’s been crying. Or if she’s still up when I get home. She might have a story about one of her friends dissing her, not being invited somewhere, her sister receiving a surprise delivery of flowers while at work. She wants to be hugged. I know it. Sometimes I manage it beside her, sideways, one arm across her shoulders for a few seconds, the usual everything’ll-be-okay bullshit. If that doesn’t snuff it, the next thing will be her hand on the back of my neck when she takes my plate after dinner or my coffee mug after some TV show is over, then comes back from the kitchen and uses both hands, starts to massage my shoulders. Even though it does feel good, I don’t let it go on too long. I usually get up and go outside for a cigarette. I know I should quit. But, really, why? Maybe it’ll all be over sooner if I don’t. When I go back inside, she’ll be done with the dishes, if I was on a dinnertime break. I can either go back to the shop, or find some work outside. I’ll be so sweaty and tired when I come back inside, instant sleep will be more honest, and defensible. But I know I can’t hold off forever. Things are getting too hot. Not in a good way. It might defuse some of the poison. Some of the rage. Some of the fear. No, I’m not afraid. Not of her. Not really. The money… the kids… what does it really matter? So why do I have to appease if I’m not afraid? Just so it’s all peaceful or at least neutral… until it’s over. That’s all. To do the thing required. Believe me, though, I don’t want to. I have to.

Every time the next time loomed, the sick anticipation was what probably made him remember the last time. Virginia had used a different signal, a new one. It had been a Saturday evening before Cal went back for a stint at the shop, she told him she was making huevos rancheros Sunday morning, so plan to sleep in and let the aroma awaken him. But it hadn’t been an aroma that woke him. Virginia put his Stan Getz with Oscar Peterson CD on a portable player and had come into the bedroom with it playing. When he’d opened his eyes, the CD player was on the floor by his nightstand, Stan was still playing the head of “I Want to Be Happy.” He didn’t see Virginia. But almost immediately had felt the bed jiggle as she’d gotten on from the other side, then moved up against him.

“No one’s home but us,” she’d whispered. He was on his side. Her hand crept under his top arm and onto his stomach. Just muscles and nerves reacting, like an anemone, the curl of his body closed tighter, his knees tucked up higher. She’d started kissing the back of his neck. Two choices were squirming sideways and falling off the bed, or turning backwards and flailing to knock her away with an elbow. He’d remained static. The mantra became get it over with, get it over with. Her hand was pushing its way down below his stomach. His tight fetal position blocked access. But how long could that last? It could have easily ended in a completely different kind of exchange if she’d gotten her hand on him, found him flaccid, and then it stayed that way even after she started fondling. It had been imminently obvious what he had to do.

He’d rolled slowly, dislodging her arm and hand. Then, face to face, she could move her kissing to his mouth. He opened his lips enough but didn’t use his tongue—he never had with her, he knew what she would consider his m.o. in that department. Likewise there was never any touching breasts, sucking nipples, he hadn’t ever even encouraged complete undressing. Probably the first time, the time that was supposed to be the only time, he’d been so horny he was raging and ready simply because of the unexpected opportunity, the shots he’d downed, the weed, the whole stranger-sex mystique.

His own hand had pushed down to his crotch to do what was needed to get hard.  And tried to do it without her knowing what he was doing. In fact, it seemed the rhythm, the motion wasn’t familiar to her. Apparently she really did sleep through it, those times he’d been too lazy to get up and go into some other dark room at three a.m. to have an alone-time session. Even odder, (or maybe fortunate but he hadn’t felt very lucky at the moment) the position of her pelvis was such that the back of his hand was coming in contact, and she’d ground herself there, perhaps assuming that was his goal.

She’d started vocalizing softly. He was taking longer to get it up than he was accustomed. He needed an image, a story to follow. But it seemed so wrong to bring X into it. Wrong to X… and wouldn’t anyone agree also wrong to Virginia?

That kind of thought stream naturally hadn’t helped. But his dick knew his hand, and something was happening. In his bathroom drawer he’d stashed some condoms when he’d starting knowing the time was coming. Not just to prevent pregnancy but to prevent evidence that he wouldn’t finish. He had to get a condom on without her realizing what he was doing. He gasped, “Just a sec, my bladder’s bursting” and surged out of the bed, into the bathroom. He did pee, because she would hear if he didn’t, then worked a little while longer with an image of X when they were sixteen that he hadn’t brought up in this kind of situation  for a while. That worked to get to the point where the condom went on. When he’d returned to the bed, thankfully, Virginia had rolled to her back, so moving to the final stage was not only accessible, but it would’ve been too weird if he hadn’t.

Propped up on his arms, eyes shut, he’d realized he’d been counting his thrusts when numbers in the thirties were pounding in his head. Then he’d consciously counted into the forties and decided it was enough. Breathing a little more rough, he’d stopped moving, tensed his body, let his head drop and hang. He stayed still, again had found himself counting, and this time when he got to twelve, he withdrew. He’d removed himself from the bed as well, returning to the bathroom to wad the condom in some toilet paper and discard it. She had no reason to paw through the trash, but still, he’d been in his underwear out in the garage emptying the bathroom trash into the big container, even tying off the bag, when Virginia had come to the kitchen to start huevos rancheros, which turned out pretty damn good.

Usually, coming home late, he didn’t have an urgent unease. But that night, after the party, after midnight when he got home, Virginia was awake.

It was dark, but he could tell Virginia was sitting up. He turned away, pretended to be feeling for the light just inside the bathroom door. The dim bathroom light was the only one he used, mornings getting up before dawn and coming to bed after her in darkness. If she was asleep, he didn’t even worry about how loud his pee hit the water or the toilet’s flush, but tonight tried to do both more softly. Just before he turned out the bathroom light, he saw Virginia still had her wig on.

Cal sat on the side of the bed, his body in the shape of a question mark. From behind him, Virginia asked, “What’re you doing?”

“Taking off my socks.” His socks still on his feet, his feet on the floor, his hands on either side of his legs on the mattress.

Virginia shifted, maybe getting closer to him. “Didn’t today make you think?”

Cal couldn’t think of an answer.

“Babes, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Six or seven horns came into the shop today.”

“Oh. But didn’t today just make you think?”

“Okay, what was today supposed to make me think?”

She was closer behind him. “Birthday parties! I wish we could have a birthday party every week, but that would mean Trin is growing up too fast.”

“What is she, eleven going on eighteen?”

“I know, girls are such sweet wild things.”

His sudden intake of breath might have sounded like a sigh. He cleared his throat to cover.

“Babes… don’t you think… I think you need a child of your own.”

Cal hadn’t moved, and she hadn’t touched him yet. He swallowed, clutched the edge of the mattress a little harder. When she shifted even closer, the old box-spring groaned and the mattress noticeably sank in the spot where he sat, which would help her to slide against him. He could stabilize it by lying down on his back, but didn’t think there was room now.

All the furniture had been Virginia’s, taken when she’d moved out of her husband’s house. She’d wanted new stuff and said, “You shouldn’t have to use that asshole Merle’s dresser, Merle’s sofa, even Merle’s bed.” Cal had said if they still worked, then why throw them away?  He didn’t say that whatever Merle had done in this bed meant nothing to him, but Virginia seemed to believe it should, because she’d said, “I’m a different person now, I’m not the woman who slept in this bed before, I’m like that goose who’s been born into a whole new world.”  Earlier that day Cal had told her about a music lesson he’d been giving where the kid came in using the same bad embouchure every week, and Cal taught him how to do it right, and every week he came back doing it wrong again, “like a goose who learns where the food is and every day can’t find it again because he’s born into a whole new world.”

He realized her bizarre suggestion was still hanging in the air, as though he were considering it. “Let’s just raise the two you have.”

“No, Cal, you really need a child of your own. Every man needs his own child.”

“Can’t every man decide for himself what he needs?” Cal tapped his socks on the shabby shag carpet. Virginia also wanted new carpet, and he knew it wasn’t unreasonable. Every room was a different disheveled color, with stains and decades of dirt.

“Sometimes you don’t know until you have it. It’s what you need. Let’s start trying. Let’s—”

Cal stood before she could drape herself over his shoulders. “I think Trinity needs your full attention. Did you know she makes other girls—”

“Cal, this would be for us.”

He propped himself against the wall with one hand and stripped his socks off his feet. “I don’t think anything needs to be changed. We’ve got enough to deal with as it is.”

“I just feel it’s right, babes, I just know it’s what you need, I just… do.”

He held his socks in one hand. The clothes hamper was at the foot of the bed, beside the dresser. He thought his walking over there, lifting the lid, placing the socks in the hamper, and taking the four steps back to where he’d been standing probably seemed like acting. But when he got back to where he’d started, he said, “I’m not sure you’re able to be objective about this kind of decision.”

“It’s easy for me to be objectionable.”

Cal was standing in the dark beside his bed, still wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He felt himself nodding. He imagined a burst of brittle laughter. Dang, Cal.

Virginia was half reclining on her hip just about where he would have to lie down if he were going to sleep tonight. “Really, trust me, a child in your hand is worth… well, you don’t know because you haven’t… you need your own, Cal, you just do.”  Virginia rolled a little more to her back, one knee still bent. She lifted the wig’s longish curly hair out from under her shoulder and laid it on the pillow. “C’mon, babes, c’mon, trust me, come here with me, let’s… tonight.”

“I’m not…” Cal muttered.

“What, babes?”

“I’m tired, Virginia. Horns have stacked up at the shop while I was playing around here today. Move over.”

He was lying down, covered up, open eyes staring at the closed bedroom door, with Virginia back on her side of the bed. He could feel the telltale vibration, hear the occasional sniffle. He realized he was still dressed in jeans and T-shirt. A piece of shit, still fully dressed, lying in bed beside a woman he’d asked to come live here with him.

Some years later, in the spring—February in the south-central California wasteland—a bird pecked at the windows of his house, sitting on the sill, tap-tap-tapping, painting the sill with purple shit. Two, three, four different windows, all day, rat-a-tatting. One morning, Cal was cleaning window screens, because the major form of precipitation here was dust. He also washed the sills, a job not tacitly included in the screen-cleaning task that had been not-so-tacitly requested of him. But it would have been difficult to ignore the plum-and-black splats of shit and pretend the chore was complete. The screens were drying propped against the garage door, the windows cranked open, so the bird achieved its life’s wish. It was finally in the house. And, inside, realized this was not what it wanted at all.

Cal caught the bird in a sheet, put it in a cardboard box. He drove it twenty miles away, into a state park in the desert. When he opened the box, the bird, wings somewhat tattered from its hours up against the window glass, flew instantly, gone in a fluttering second, the force of its departure knocking the box out of Cal’s hand. Gone so fast he barely could follow the directional line of flight. But thought, perhaps, it was—by accident, just fluke—the route back to town.

Later, the screens back in place, the windows shut, the bird returned, tapping, not knowing why it so fixatedly wanted this thing it wanted, this thing that has frayed its feathers and bewildered its instinct, this thing that upon achieving led to imprisonment, darkness, and miles of flight, only to return and want it again.

He looked it up. It was a male brown-headed cowbird. Instead of spending its time with a mate, building a nest and making hundreds of daily trips back and forth with bugs to stuff down the pre-fledglings’ throats, the male cowbird had time to spend pecking at windows because the female, producing up to a dozen eggs a season, laid them into the nests of other, usually smaller, birds. Industrious sparrows, doves, towhees, catbirds. The cowbird hatchlings grew faster, frequently crowded the bio-kids out of the nest and occupied the step-parents’ time and resources. Why wasn’t it the duped, dutiful sparrow or dove pecking with aberrant wretchedness at his window?

In the room where Trinity used to sleep, Cal got his saxophone out, sat on the bed fingering the keys, but didn’t put the mouthpiece between his lips.


Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her chronicling the 25-year journey to reunite with a boy from her past.  She was also co-producer, writer, and lead actress for a feature film, Anorgasmia, a fictional sequel to that memoir, a groundbreaking blend of memoir, documentary and fiction. Mazza has sixteen other titles, including her first novel, How to Leave a Country, which won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction, and the critically acclaimed Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.